Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Sextoness of Goodramgate

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Project Genesis are the personal stories that emerge from the many and varied archives held here at the Institute. Most recently the addition of the Borthwick’s charity records to the online catalogue revealed the story of Grace Green and, through her, a rather unexpected female occupation.

Grace appears in the records of Lady Conyngham’s Charity, a trust established in 1816 to provide yearly pensions for ten poor clergymen, twelve ‘poor and distressed’ widows of clergymen, and six poor women of York aged over 50.

Many early applications for these pensions survive in the archive and the applications of poor women of York make particularly interesting, if poignant, reading, chronicling as they do bereavements, illness, and misfortune and the limited and too often inadequate means of employment open to women in the early nineteenth century.

Grace’s application is part of the earliest bundle, dated 1816-1817. She describes herself as a 67 year old widow living in Goodramgate and, in contrast to the usual occupations of washerwoman, seamstress, nurse and teacher listed in the various applications, states that her existing financial support ‘arises from the office of Sexton of the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity… which she has held upwards of Thirty Years now last past.’ The Church of the Holy Trinity was Holy Trinity Goodramgate, York, and her application was endorsed by James Dallin, then rector of that parish.

Grace Green’s application to Lady Conyngham’s charitable trust.

A sexton is a parish officer, usually responsible for the maintenance of the church buildings and churchyard and for the digging of graves. At a time when women were barred from most public offices, Grace’s occupation was somewhat surprising but, as research proved, she was not the first woman to hold this office, nor even the first one in York.

The existence of ‘sextonesses’ can be traced back to at least 1671 when a female sexton was recorded at Islington in Middlesex. A sextoness was also employed at nearby Hackney in 1690 and 1730. It is not yet clear how common this practice was, but in 1739 it proved controversial enough to prompt a court case when Sarah Bly, the widow of the sexton of St Botolph without Aldersgate in London, was elected to succeed her late husband to the post.

Mrs Bly had polled 209 votes to her opponent’s 196; crucially, forty of her votes came from female householders in the parish. Her opponent, John Olive, took the matter to the Court of King’s Bench, requiring judges to decide not only whether a woman could hold the position of sexton, but whether women could vote in such elections at all.

Fortunately for Sarah Bly and those who came after her, after five months of deliberations the court ruled that as women had held higher offices (Anne, Countess of Pembroke and hereditary Sheriff of Westmoreland was used as an example), and as ‘the office of sexton was no publick office, nor a matter of skill or judgement, but only a private office of trust,’ it was perfectly legal for any woman who paid her church rates to hold the office and to vote in the elections for it.

The first known sextoness in York died just twenty years later in 1759 at the exceptional age of a century or more. She was described in The Gentleman’s Magazine of that year as ‘Mary Hall, sexton of Bishop-Hill, York City, aged 105, she walked about and retained her senses till within three days of her death.’ The London Evening Post adds that Mary had succeeded her husband to the office and that, between them, they had ‘enjoyed that Place 69 years.’

Burial record of ‘Mary Hall saxton aged 100 years’ in the burial register of St Mary Bishophill Senior, York, in 1759.

It would seem that widows succeeding their husbands to office was a common factor in the election of sextonesses, perhaps as a means of continuing financial support for the family. This was certainly true of Grace Green who succeeded her husband Thomas, a weaver, to the post at his death in 1802.

Thomas had been sexton of Holy Trinity Goodramgate since at least 1795, the year that Grace appeared as a witness in a case brought before the church courts for sexual defamation as the 42 year old ‘wife of the sexton.’ Thomas died aged 81 and in the following year the churchwardens’ accounts of Holy Trinity Goodramgate list the ‘sexton’s salary 24s, her bill 8s 2d.’ Thereafter there are yearly references to payments made to Grace Green for her sexton’s salary and for additional work such as cleaning the church, washing, and cooking.

It is not clear what else her duties entailed and whether she did in fact ever dig any graves or whether this job was delegated to another. Certainly there is evidence that sextonesses could and did carry out the more physical aspects of the job. In Kingston upon Thames, near London, the redoubtable Hester Hammerton rang the church bell and dug all the graves in the churchyard herself from 1730, when she succeeded her father in the role of sexton, until her death in 1746. Hester, who wore a loose gown and a man’s waistcoat and hat on every day but Sunday, ‘possessed great bodily strength,’ according to an 1820 memorial of her, and on one occasion was said to have confronted two would-be thieves in the church and ‘resolutely seized one of them by the collar and threw him over the reading desk into the pew below.’

Hester, or Esther, Hammerton of Kingston Upon Thames in James Caulfield’s ‘Portaits, memoirs, and characters, of remarkable persons: from the revolution in 1688 to the end of the reign of George II (1820).   Image used with kind permission of Digital Library@ Villanova University.

Sadly the parish records for Holy Trinity Goodramgate offer no such stories for Grace. Her sexton’s salary of £2 a year, rising to £4 and 4 shillings by the 1820s, provided her with a very small income, small enough that she was moved to apply to Lady Conyngham’s Charity for additional help in 1816. Unfortunately her application was unsuccessful and the parish records show that Grace continued as sexton until around 1834, two years before her death in 1836 at the age of 90.

Grace was not the last of her family to hold the office however. In the same year that Grace’s name ceases to appear, a ‘Mary Green’ begins to be paid the sexton’s salary instead. Mary was the daughter of Grace and Thomas, born in 1782, and she continued in the role of sexton until 1863 when ‘thro’ old age & infirmity’ she was finally succeeded by the parish clerk, Isaac Barker, bringing to an end 61 years of Green family sextonesses at Holy Trinity Church.


James Caulfield, ‘Portraits, Memoirs, and Characters, of Remarkable Persons : From the Revolution in 1688 to the End of the Reign of George II,’ Volume III (London, 1820)

Sarah Richardson, ‘The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain’ (Oxford, 2013)

Hilda L. Smith, ‘Women writers and the early modern British political tradition’ (Cambridge, 1998)